Will the Past Be Repeated?

What follows is a journal of response and reflection after a remarkable 4-day journey along what might be called the Civil Rights Trail, from Jackson, Meridian and Philadelphia in Mississippi, and Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama. My wife and I and about 40 others made this trip at a time of rising anxiety among minorities and many whites about the increase in hate-related behavior following our recent presidential election.  The question hanging over us: will we allow the past to repeat itself?

image4-6JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI:  (Our first stop) The Greyhound bus station in downtown Jackson has been restored since the days of the Freedom Riders, who were seeking to desegregate public accommodations (as required by the Supreme Court). It takes a powerful imagination to visualize busloads of Freedom Riders arriving May 24th, 1961, guarded by tight security. In other cities the Freedom Riders had been viciously attacked, their buses burned, and the city of Jackson was determined to avoid violence (fearing for its reputation, not the Civil Rights activists.) And so, on arriving at the Greyhound station, the activists got off the buses and walked into the ‘White Only’ waiting room, where they were immediately arrested, marched into other buses, and taken to jail or directly to Parchman Farm, Mississippi’s notorious maximum security state prison. At their trial (and before convicting them), the judge actually turned his back whenever their defense attorney was speaking. He sentenced 161 Freedom Riders to 60 days in Parchman, although the convictions were eventually overturned. While at Parchman, most were held in isolation. Mississippi’s Governor, Ross Barnett, is supposed to have told prison officials, “Break their spirits, not their bones.”

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Medgar Evers, a college-educated World War II veteran and a prominent civil rights activist, lived and died here.  Died on June 12, 1963, shot in the back by Byron De La Beckwith, a prominent member of the White Citizens’ Council. Mr. Evers had survived two earlier assassination attempts; a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the carport of his home and, one week before his murder, someone tried to run him down as he was crossing the street outside the local NAACP office.

Our guides on the trip were former ‘foot soldiers’ in the struggle for Civil Rights. One told us how Mr. Evers had been taken to the local hospital, where he was denied treatment because of his race and only admitted when hospital officials realized that he was ‘important.’ It was too late. He died..and was later buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

De La Beckwith got away with murder…for  31 years.  Finally, in 1994 he was brought to justice and sentenced to life imprisonment (Two previous trials in 1964 had resulted in hung juries).  De La Beckwith died at age 80 in 2001, seven years after being convicted. We heard this gripping story, and others, from a remarkable reporter, Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson.img_3124Jerry, whose numerous awards include a MacArthur ‘Genius’ grant, is a fearless reporter whose work has put at least four notorious race-baiting Klansmen behind bars…including one of the men who bombed the Birmingham church in 1963 and one of the Klansmen who murdered James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman in 1964. Jerry is also a warm, generous, engaging story-teller as well as a credit to the profession I recently retired from.

Our trip was organized by  the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University and the Education Policy Center at The University of Alabama. Most participants worked at Community Colleges in Alabama and Mississippi and were serving as Educational Policy Fellows in a program run by the Institute for Educational Leadership. My wife and I gained (paid) admission because I serve on the IEL Board.

This was our next stop, Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, which is in rural Mississippi but near both Philadelphia and Meridian.

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This church has been burned twice, in 1964 and again in 1971.  The first burning occurred in June of 1964 when two groups of Klansmen surrounded the church, expecting to find Michael ‘Mickey’ Schwerner inside.  The Church’s leaders had agreed to allow a Freedom School to operate there, and someone had shared that news with the wrong people.  We learned that the Klansmen fought among themselves about the ‘appropriate’ punishment for the Church and parishioners. They savagely beat some churchgoers and then left, but one of the two Klan groups later returned and torched the church, destroying it.

We were privileged to hear from parishioners and church officials everywhere we visited, and what remains most striking, unforgettably so, is the forgiving attitude of those who were victimized by white racists.  When I expressed amazement, one woman said simply, “If you let hate fester, it will kill you.”  She paused and added, “And then they win.”

When word that Mt. Zion Church had been burned to the ground reached Mickey Schwerner in Oxford, Ohio, where he and his wife were helping train the Freedom Summer volunteers, he packed his bag and left for Mississippi.  Accompanying him were his close associate James Chaney, a native of Mississippi and an African American, and one bright volunteer, Andrew Goodman of New York City.

Arriving in Meridian, they went to their headquarters to tell the two young people at the office of their plans. One of them was Roscoe Jones, then 18 years old, who was one of our guides on this remarkable tour.  Roscoe told us that James Chaney asked him to come along, but Mickey said Roscoe couldn’t come without his mother’s permission, which he did not have.  Because he stayed behind, he is alive today.  Roscoe, now 69 years old, is pictured below at James Chaney’s gravesite.

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On the drive from Mt. Zion back to Meridian, their station wagon got a flat tire. While they were changing the tire, local law enforcement noticed two whites and one black and stopped to question them. When a cop recognized Schwerner (known to them as ‘The Goatee’), the police waited until the three drove away and then arrested them.  The charge was ‘speeding.’  They were held in the Philadelphia jail (below) until well after dark–long enough for the law officers to inform the Klan and for members to gather near the jail.

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As Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman left town late that night they were followed by law enforcement and others. Before they reached the Neshoba County line (and perhaps safety), their car was pulled over after a high speed chase, and all three were abducted, driven to another location, and murdered. Schwerner and Goodman were shot on the spot, but Chaney was savagely beaten before being killed.  Andy Goodman, a New York college student, had been in Mississippi less than 30 hours.  They were murdered close to this spot below.  Buried in an earthen dam, their bodies were not discovered for 44 days…and then only after a substantial reward was offered.

(During the search, which included dredging canals and ponds, searchers discovered NINE additional bodies, victims of earlier violence.)

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That was in 1964, and, sadly, the race hatred remains.  Plaques commemorating their deaths are ‘routinely’ trashed. Notice in the photo below the TWO plaques near Mt. Zion Church, the vandalized one on the ground, its new replacement recently installed. img_5589

And James Chaney’s grave has been vandalized so many times that some local citizens have welded bars to keep it from being toppled over. The bars are clearly visible behind the tombstone.

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civil-rights-bus-tour-nov-2016-209On James Chaney’s tombstone are these words: “There are those who are alive yet who will never live. There are those who are dead yet who will live forever. Great deeds inspire and encourage the living.”

When the state of Mississippi refused to prosecute, the US Government charged 18 men with civil rights violations. Seven were convicted in 1967 but served only minor sentences.

However, the murders of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman changed history. One consequence was the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, after which minority registration soared from about 6% in Mississippi to over 60% today, for example.

And to come full circle, 41 years after the murders and after extensive investigations by reporter Jerry Mitchell, one perpetrator, Edgar Ray Killen, was charged. Killen, an ordained Baptist minister and active Klan member, was convicted in 2005 on three counts of manslaughter and is serving a 60-year sentence.  Killen was known to all as “Preacher.”

With that, our bus left Mississippi and headed for Alabama, which I will write about next. Meantime, I urge you to watch “Freedom Summer,” a superb PBS film from WGBH and American Experience.

(The photos were taken by Julia Parker, Leslie Worthington and Joan Lonergan.)

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18 thoughts on “Will the Past Be Repeated?

  1. This story cannot be told too often. Every year there are services at Mt. Zion. Some years there are larger remembrances in Philadelphia. The newly affluent Choctaw Indian community (GM plant, casino, etc.) sometimes provides its school buses to provide transportation from site to site. I’ve heard very interesting speeches by such folk as the former Secretary of State, Dick Molpus, who held the rapt attention of the crowd as he spoke to Rita Schwerner Bender and apologized on behalf of White Mississippi in blunt Anglo-Saxon sentences, and the then Governor, Haley Barbour, who said what he was supposed to say but not a phrase more.
    I wish you’d visited Tougaloo College as well. No one should leave central Mississippi without doing so. The site of such occurrences as the last night camp of the “Meredith March,” after the tear gassing in Canton; of Fannie Lou Hamer’s speech in the Chapel and Joan Baez’s concert after Tougaloo students and faculty persuaded her to cancel her planned appearance in Jackson’s Fine Arts Series because it was segregated; the home base of the students who undertook the 1961 library sit-in and the famed Woolworth’s sit-in; the ….

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  2. Jim
    I appreciate your adding to what what a chock full itinerary, and I hope lots of people who consider making the trip will do as you suggest. As you know, the Woolworths in Jackson has been demolished.

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  3. Looking back it’s amazing how we have pursued life’s challenges- after Penn I had to decide about me and Vietnam – joined the Army, later switched to the Air Force, and completed 6 years of service – so I am a very proud veteran – you went to the south – I went to Normandy – you have had a brilliant career in education, the backbone of our country and the future – I wanted money and the nice things that my family could enjoy – so I spent 45 years on Wall Street – we both pursued our passion – did we know that at Taft ???

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  4. John:

    I started my teaching career in the predominantly black college, Fayetteville State University, in 1965 on the heels of the events you describe. That experience helped shape my teaching career and my life. In the past fifty plus years, I have witnessed many changes in the racial divide in America. In the last eight years, in the wake of the election of the first African-American president, I have observed that racial divide widen. Much of that division has been exacerbated by that same president and his attorneys-general.

    As to the recent presidential election, the rhetoric on both sides is reminiscent of the verbal overkill of 1968. I am very alarmed at the recent vitriol aimed at the president elect and the apparent desire to delegitimize him before he is inaugurated. I did not want Donald Trump as the candidate of the Republican party, but I wish him success, just as I did in 2009 when Barack Obama was elected, for the good of this great republic.

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    • Dave
      Thanks for writing this remembrance and admonition. I too taught for two years at an HBCU, Virginia State College (now University) in Petersburg, VA. I am waiting for the President-elect to denounce the haters, with my fingers crossed. But I am also afraid, frankly

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  5. Reblogged this on BLOGGYWOCKY and commented:
    A very powerful narrative, and I am old enough to remember these events, and I also remember crying about them.
    We should never forget the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.

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  6. Dear John:

    Thank you for bringing our attention to these events and remembering them in detail, honoring the amazing people who led the struggle and the wonderful people who understood the need not to let hate rule, either externally or internally.

    My closest white friends were in SNCC before and during Freedom Summer. I was in New York City, volunteering for the Harlem Action Group, where I was supported by Harlem residents, one of whom – Leroy Looper – later became the founding board chair of YouthBuild USA, and the founder of Reality House and Chateau Agape, residential programs for people addicted to drugs and for people with mental illness. I started a summer pre-school for 6 year olds who had missed kindergarten. On June 21st, 1964, the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner roiled our world.

    My life has been dedicated to empowering low-income young people to overcome the impacts of race and class oppression, and work toward eliminating the causes of those oppressions through becoming leaders who understand the power of love and of coordinated action. One thing Martin Luther King Jr. did …. that was interrupted by his assassination…. was start to unify poor blacks and whites in a poor people’s movement to end poverty. This is waiting to be done again.

    Thank you for your lifetime of service! And for taking the time to report this trip.

    In gratitude and solidarity,

    Dorothy Stoneman

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    • Dorothy, You are one of the heroes, past present and future. You and YouthBuild have done as much for disenfranchised young people as anyone I know of, and I applaud your work. Tough times are coming, and we need YouthBuild more than ever.
      John

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  7. Thank you for sharing this with us, John. As a ½ Alabamian, I wondered where you would take this. I think what you have written and shown is very good. And I agree is it important to tell this history.

    Of course, nothing is ever 100% white or black and I’m not referring to race. In my experience as a young person in Alabama and since, my family and most whites considered the Klan and its members as a bad, wrong-headed and trouble making element of the society there. I never heard anyone speak up for the Klan. The supporters of the Klan were relatively small in numbers and certainly small minded because of their inferior social and educational levels to be frank about it.

    This type still exists, particularly in the non-urban areas of Alabama where our farm is, about 50 miles south of where you traversed on your retracing of the Selma march to Montgomery. However, I still have not met and do not know of any Klan sympathizers let alone members there, but I can well imagine there are some and they would not be much different than their predecessors in 1964 except that the rest of the society there does not give them the leeway they perhaps enjoyed to some degree back then.

    As a New Yorker as well as an Alabamian I was always struck by what I thought seemed to be better black-white relations in the South than in the North which I attributed to the fact that the two groups had lived with each other for generations whereas in the North not so. I urge you not to be anxious about any increase in hate-related behavior following our recent presidential election. I take it you mean race based hate. Just as I do not know of any Klan people in our Alabama rural neighborhood today, I do not know of any who did not vote for President elect Trump, except for my sister and a cousin, but they went to Wellesley! But as to the question you suggest hangs over us of whether we will we allow the past to repeat itself, I would fast forward to our local Walmart in Greenville, Alabama where you will see, every visit mixed race couples, both ways, and their children. You won’t find that on Long Island.

    I think the Trump landslide in Alabama was more a reaction to the current administration’s social and economic agendas which Alabama Trump voters feel left them out and not to President Obama’s ½ African heritage.

    To close on this I recall L. P. Hartley, the British novelist and short story writer who so aptly wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. Today the South is a foreign country from what was in 1964. I hope you enjoyed it. By the way, I also hope when you were in Montgomery that you may have gotten to visit the Alabama Archives Building which recently had a big Freedom March exhibit. It’s a magnificent New Deal creation perhaps to honor Hugo Black, who in reflection of the march of history said near the end of his life that he regretted having been a Klansman.

    Best regards,

    Stallworth Larsen

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  8. […] Our bus of 40+ “pilgrims” left Mississippi and headed for Selma, Alabama, the site of three historic Civil Rights marches in March, 1965.  As the bus sped along, we watched “Selma,” Ava DuVernay’s wonderful film that brings to life the struggle southern Black citizens faced when they attempted to register to vote.  (The narrative and photos regarding our experiences in Mississippi are here.) […]

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  9. We are unfortunately repeating the past in voter suppression, demagoguery that gets poor whites to vote for reactionaries who play on their fear of nonwhites and blame them for what has not worked out in their lives, resegegation of education by race and poverty, appointment of an idiot who thinks fair housing is communism to run HUD, race-baed opposition to Obama (a centrist moderate) massive imprisionment of young African Americans and Latinos, continuing job discrimination, etc., millions of Latinos living in fear of massive deportations destroying their families. IT is going to get worse on many dimensions, including the creation of what could be the most conservative Supreme Court in a very long time if Trump gets multiple appointments. IT is very good to review the struggles of the civil rights era to get ready for those that are coming.

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  10. John:
    Thank you for the memories, now recorded. I was struck not only by the fine
    hospitality extended to those of us from the northern states, but also by the gracious
    and knowledgeable guides we met at each stop in the journey. R. Bartle, Lincoln, Ne

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  11. I think I have a few things to learn from your post!! Thanks for sharing!Growing up my mum would always say "NO MONEY" whenever I point at something at the shops. Apparently my hubby was the same so what happens when you have 2 deprived parents who suddenly have a kid?…haha! So my first got everything..my second and third has A LOT of hand me down toys! Lucky for me I have a girl in the middle who I can indulge in once in a while. But not much. I'm over buying things. Great post – a reminder to us all!!

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